Film Review: A Paris Education

A very, very French coming-of-age movie.
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Early on in writer-director Jean Paul Civeyrac’s cinephile bildungsroman, A Paris Education (Mes Provinciales), a student complains to one his buddies: “I’ve had enough of whiny French films. I want to see films that talk about real life.”

Arguably, this is not what 53-year-old Civeyrac (Through the Forest, Young Girls in Black) delivers in his latest feature, which follows the travails of a young man from the provinces who arrives in Paris to attend film school. Shot in widescreen black-and-white and clocking in at over two hours, with many scenes devoted to extended discussions about movies, books and the desperation of existence, A Paris Education may very well be a whiny French film par excellence.

Yet that doesn’t make it any less compelling, and with its pared-down aesthetic and grounded naturalistic performances, Education recalls such “whiny” classics of French cinema as Jean Eustache’s The Mother and the Whore and Philippe Garrel’s Regular Lovers—movies about young intellectuals who spend their days and nights smoking, having sex, sitting around cafés and arguing a lot about art and politics.

That’s the bulk of what happens to the dark-eyed, floppy-haired Etienne (relative newcomer Andranic Manet), who travels from his working-class home in Lyon to study cinema at the Universite Paris 8, located in the Seine-Saint-Denis suburb just north of the city. He quickly falls in with two classmates: the cheerful and rather helpful Jean-Noel (Gonzague Van Bervesseles) and the cocky, seductive Mathias (Corentin Fila), who talks about movies like he’s the next Jean-Luc Godard but has yet to put his words into action.

With his diatribes about the cinema and unstable lifestyle, Mathias becomes a guru-like figure for Etienne, who’s striving to be a major director himself—he name-drops Robert Bresson and reads Gilles Deleuze’s Cinema 1: The Movement-Image on the metro—but questions his own work too much. He’s also distracted by a typically French love life, which involves a girlfriend back home (Diane Rouxel); a roommate (Jenna Thiam) who’s in love with him; a second roommate, Anabelle (Sophie Verbeeck), who doesn’t love him; and a girl from school he sleeps with on the side.

Civeyrac chronicles Etienne’s first year at school in an episodic manner, fading to black after each sequence and inserting chapter headings that divide the story into four sections and a brief epilogue. There is a bit of drama after the midway point involving a love triangle between Etienne, Mathias and Anabelle, but such conflicts seem less important than the burning questions that keep Etienne and his friends up at night: Will they become great auteurs one day? Will they even get to make films at all? Or will the scope of their dreams be diminished by reality?

It’s a typical roman d’education in the style of Balzac or Flaubert (the French title, Mes Provinciales, refers to a book by Blaise Pascal), where a young man arrives in Paris and finds his hopes put to the test by the big city. But here, everything is distilled through the very specific gaze of a French film lover—both Etienne and Civeyrac himself—who seems to live in a bubble of pre-’60s art movies, classic literature, and the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, which graces the soundtrack.

The effect can be disorienting, like we’re watching a period piece shot in the present. Yet as anachronistic as A Paris Education may seem (a running time of 136 minutes doesn’t always help matters, either), there’s a conviction to the storytelling that can’t be denied, and no matter what your tastes are, it’s hard not to be moved by Etienne’s struggle to find his voice amid so much doubt and disillusion.

Whether he does so by the end is up for grabs, but Civeyrac has definitely found his, telling a sincere and very specific kind of coming-of-age tale that’s anchored in the performances of a committed young cast, many of them relatively unknown. The result feels slightly out of time, yet true to its own intentions, and it brings to mind how some of the best French movies—especially those of the New Wave—are marked by both an intense love of film and the fiery passions of youth. Indeed, in A Paris Education, cinephilia can sometimes turn into a matter of life and death.--The Hollywood Reporter